2022 Division Preview: NL Central

Previewing every team in the NL Central for 2022.

Over the past several years, the NL Central has been close if not always competitive. Teams in the Central typically vacillate somewhere in between “complete teardown” (Pirates) and “competing, but only at our price” (Brewers). The pennant races have been exciting, such as Game 163 in 2018, or last year’s hard-charging Cardinals doing everything they could to force the Brewers to clinch at the last moment, but largely postseason success has eluded the Central. In the following preview, we will look over each team’s projected lineups, benches, rotations, and bullpens.

Disclaimer: All lineup info has been based on findings on MLB.com and via beat writers on social media. Their projected rosters are set for 26 players right now, though they’ll expand to 28 players to account for the shorter spring training. Player additions and subtractions come from MLB Trade Rumors and ESPN’s free agent tracker.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

2021 Record: 90-72 (.556 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

Additions: SP Steven Matz, DH Corey Dickerson, DH Albert Pujols

Subtractions: SP Kwang-Hyun Kim, SP/RP Carlos Martínez, RP Andrew Miller, UTIL Matt Carpenter

 

Projected Lineup

 

Order  Player Position Bats
1 Tommy Edman 2B S
2 Paul Goldschmidt 1B R
3 Tyler O’Neill LF R
4 Nolan Arenado 3B R
5 Corey Dickerson DH L
6 Harrison Bader CF R
7 Yadier Molina C R
8 Dylan Carlson RF S
9 Paul DeJong SS R

Projected Bench

Player Position Bats
Albert Pujols DH R
Lars Nootbaar OF L
Edmundo Sosa UTIL R
Andrew Knizner C R

 

The Cardinals, per usual, have built a depth squad. Edmundo Sosa had a terrific autumn for the Redbirds, and may push Paul DeJong at shortstop if DeJong is unable to right the ship to his previous levels of production. Goldschmidt and Arenado are likely to be Goldschmidt and Arenado again this season, giving the Cardinals a strong middle of the lineup.

Ultimately, the Cardinals’ offensive success largely comes down to Harrison Bader (110 wRC+) and Tyler O’Neill (145 wRC+) maintaining their success from last year. If they can, the Cardinal lineup will be the strongest in the Central division to complement their best-in-all-of-baseball defense from 2021. And if they can’t, the Cardinals still have that great defense and all-star players anchoring their lineup. There are worse floors to have than St. Louis’.

 

Projected Starting Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Jack Flaherty R
2 Adam Wainwright R
3 Steven Matz L
4 Miles Mikolas R
5 Dakota Hudson R

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Steven Matz was the Cards’ big-ticket free agent signing this winter. Matz has been a bit up-and-down throughout his career, but righted the ship in a big way with Toronto last year when he posted a 3.79 FIP in 150 innings. It’s a solid veteran lefty for the middle of the rotation.

Jack Flaherty would get the nod for the opening day start, but is expected to begin the season on the IL with a shoulder injury. If that turns out to be more serious and holds Flaherty to fewer than the 15 starts he was able to make last season, the Cardinals could accelerate the debut of their top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, or mix and match some starting options with Nick Wittgren, Jake Woodford, or Johan Oviedo.

Ageless Adam Wainwright turned in his best performance since 2014 (!) last season and will hope to continue that in 2022. Overall, the pitching staff is a solid if unspectacular collection of veteran pitchers with a lot of question marks due to age, injury, and stability. They would be well-served to induce a lot of ground balls and let the excellent defense do the work for them.

 

Storylines To Follow

 

What does a manager have to do to keep his job around here, anyway? After finishing first, second, and second in the division between 2019 and 2021, and first and third-place finishes in NL Manager of the Year voting, the Cardinals moved on from Mike Shildt in October. The organization cited philosophical differences in the split, which is understandable, but for their own sake — they better hope they’re right.

The Cardinals replaced Shildt with the now-youngest manager in MLB, Oliver Marmol, who served as the St. Louis bench coach for the past two seasons. It’s a lot of pressure on a first-time manager, but the front office is likely to catch a lot of heat if it turns out the “philosophical” approach of the manager isn’t actually the issue. It’s a bold move from the front office and if nothing else, you have to give them credit for not going with a “safe” choice for manager.

Much of the consternation around Shildt probably stemmed from a disappointing and somewhat disastrous first half from the Cardinals that forced them to win 17 in a row in September to claw back into the playoff race after being 15 games behind in the division. The first half saw the Cards hit .230/.301/.379 as a team, and .261/.328/.451 in the second.

Which Cardinals team was the real one? The answer of course is probably somewhere in between the two extremes, but that will go a long way in determining St. Louis’ fate in the division.

Also, Albert Pujols is back. Neat! Pujols, Molina, and Wainwright are running it back one more time (as of now) and while it remains to be seen how instrumental they’ll be to the Cardinals’ success, it’s a fun story and fans of other NL Central teams will wish them well upon retirement, I’m sure.

 

Milwaukee Brewers

2021 Record: 95-67 (.586 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

Additions: OF/DH Andrew McCutchen, OF Hunter Renfroe

Subtractions: OF Avisail García, 3B Eduardo Escobar

 

Projected Lineup

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Pedro Severino C R
Keston Hiura UTIL R
Jace Peterson UTIL L
Tyrone Taylor CF R
Pablo Reyes UTIL R

 

How good the Brewer offense can be likely depends on how good Christian Yelich can be. The team struggled to score runs last season, managing just a 91 wRC+, lowest of all playoff teams. With an MVP Yelich, the Brewers are at least league-average without any obvious immediate holes in the lineup and room for growth from young players like Luis Urías and Willy Adames.

Without MVP Yelich, it’s difficult to see how the run scoring improves markedly with a team that lost last year’s second-best hitter (García) and best power source, and now also has to fill an extra bat in the lineup with the new DH rules in the National League.

Hunter Renfroe will certainly help fill that gap left by García, but with the Brewer rotation being what it is, it’s somewhat surprising the Brewers didn’t do much to bolster their lineup given last year’s struggles. McCutchen still absolutely crushes lefties, but is currently expected to take the majority of games at DH.

Luis Urías took another step forward last season, but is expected to miss Opening Day with an injury, though it isn’t expected to be a long-term issue. Pablo Reyes and Jace Peterson will probably take the majority of those innings at the hot corner until Urías returns.

 

Projected Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Brandon Woodruff R
2 Corbin Burnes R
3 Freddy Peralta R
4 Adrian Houser R
5 Eric Lauer L

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL Josh Hader L
SU Devin Williams R
SU Brad Boxberger R
Mid Brent Suter L
Mid Jake Cousins R
Mid Hoby Milner L
Long José Ureña R

 

The Brewers will once again rely on the strength of their pitching staff to carry the team. The Brewers have as good of a 1-3 starting pitching rotation as any in baseball, headlined by Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes. If you want to squint your eyes, you can see how the bullpen could use more depth behind their lights-out duo of Hader and Williams, but the Brewers kind of just had a knack for figuring out and developing bullpen arms the past several seasons.

Health will be the name of the game for the Brew Crew’s pitching staff. All five of the Brewers’ 2022 projected starters threw more than 100 innings last year, and among the “big three,” Freddy Peralta came in with the fewest innings pitched at 142. If the Brewers can get close to 500 innings out of those three this season, they should be considered the favorites in the division, but with a weak offensive lineup, a lot is riding on that happening.

 

Storylines To Follow

 

It’s entirely the offense. If it’s even league-average, the Brewers probably repeat as NL Central champions, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Milwaukee’s front office has built a reputation for being opportunistic in the free agent market, whether through trades (Yelich, Adames) or signing late free agents the market was seemingly undervaluing (Cain, Yasmani Grandal). It’s worked up to a point, but hitting has usually come back around to bite the Brewers in the postseason, and that strategy only works when other teams are sitting on the sidelines. Veteran players like Tommy Pham, Jonathan Villar, and Kris Bryant are being signed by other NL teams at positions of need for the Brewers, and may make them regret not being more active in free agency.

On the other hand, Michael Conforto is still out there and would make an excellent platoon partner with Andrew McCutchen, so maybe the Brewers are simply biding their time.

 

Chicago Cubs

2021 Record: 71-91 (.438 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

Additions: SP Marcus Stroman, SP Drew Smyly, OF Seiya Suzuki, SS Andrelton Simmons, OF Clint Frazier

Subtractions: 1B Anthony Rizzo, 3B Kris Bryant, SS Javier Báez, RP Craig Kimbrel

 

Projected Lineup

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Yan Gomes C R
Andrelton Simmons SS R
Jonathan Villar UTIL S
Michael Hermosillo OF R

 

I don’t know, you try to figure this lineup out!

On the one hand, there isn’t an excess of upside or someone that’s a sure-fire, all-star anchor to the batting lineup on the North side. On the other, would it really be surprising if any of these players made the All-Star team? There’s enough mix-and-match depth and intriguing upside on the team to consider them interesting.

The big unknown and pinned hopes of patrons at Slugger’s will be Seiya Suzuki, the Japanese star the Cubs were able to sign in the offseason. The Cubs seem to think more highly of him than the rest of MLB, but credit them for taking a shot on Suzuki’s upside. Last year in Japan, Suzuki hit a ridiculous .317/.433/.636 with 38 homers, all at age 26. Yes, it’s a different league context, but that should be enough to dream on this year.

The depth on this team should provide enough pieces to platoon and play matchups to where I don’t think the Cubs will be as bad as last year’s team, if just one or two of the upside of Suzuki, Madrigal, Wisdom, or Schwindel comes to fruition, even with the full-season loss of Rizzo, Bryant, and Báez.

 

Projected Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Kyle Hendricks R
2 Marcus Stroman R
3 Wade Miley L
4 Drew Smyly L
5 Alec Mills R

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL David Robertson R
CL Mychal Givens R
CL Rowan Wick R
SU Chris Martin R
Mid Daniel Norris L
Mid Jesse Chavez R
Mid Scott Effross R
Mid Justin Steele L

 

The rotation is built almost entirely of high-floor veterans and should be solid, even if it doesn’t have the potential for upside of the Cubs’ offense. Signing Marcus Stroman was a bit of a surprise, given the conventional wisdom of the Cubs’ new contention window, but Stroman should be a solid piece for Chicago, as he’s never posted an FIP above four in his entire career. Wade Miley is a veteran with a solid track record the past four years (excepting an unusual 2020 with just 14 innings pitched), and will make some playoff-contending teams wish they had signed him in the offseason. Kyle Hendricks is worth watching. Is he at the beginning of the end (or at least a new phase) of his career? Or was 2021 (4.77 ERA, 4.89 FIP, both career highs) an aberration?

You might consider given his low walk rates and previous seasons’ postseason success leaving Chris Martin off the closer’s role to be a … cold play. The bullpen situation, much like the lineup, seems to be a fluid situation at the moment. For now, I’ll give David Robertson the go-ahead look at the closer’s spot given his typical high strikeout rates, but Mychal Givens and Rowan Wick are in the mix as well and all of them will probably have the chance to close out games at some point.

 

Storylines To Follow

 

The Cubs have an intriguing lineup, especially with Suzuki joining the team from Japan. There are enough darts with players (Frank Schwindel, Clint Frazier) who have had some success in the past where you could see the Cubs contending for a playoff spot if things break right and someone takes a huge step forward offensively, particularly with a rotation with a strong track record.

Figuring out where the Cubs are in their new contention window will be of interest. The new arrivals, such a the aforementioned Suzuki and Marcus Stroman may indicate the Cubs are expecting to contend within a year or two, which would be welcome news for the NL Central and baseball overall after last year’s team underachieved with their last go-round with the World Series core. If things don’t break right, however, the Cubs could be treading water for a couple of years by the time their best prospects are ready, at which time they may be ready to rebuild their current lineup and rotation. Time will tell.

 

Cincinnati Reds

2021 Record: 83-79 (.512 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

Additions: OF Tommy Pham, RP Hunter Strickland, UTIL Colin Moran

Subtractions: OF Nick Castellanos, SP Wade Miley, 3B Eugenio Suarez, RP Amir Garrett, SP Sonny Gray

 

Projected Lineup

 

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Andrew Knapp C R
Jake Fraley OF L
Shogo Akiyama OF L
Donovan Solano UTIL R
Aristedes Aquino OF R

 

Is this good?

In all seriousness, the Reds have made some moves. Tommy Pham and Hunter Strickland were both signed to one-year deals and should be solid players during the season, and then likely the Reds will be looking to flip them to playoff contenders come July. Most of the Reds offseason, however, has been focused on cost-cutting moves even as the team has generally not strayed too far away from playoff contention in recent years. They’ve finished third each of the past two seasons, and hovered just above .500, which might be enough to reach the playoffs in an expanded format.

However, the Reds have decided to cut salary and for the time being will roll with veterans Votto and Moustakas somewhere near the middle of their lineup. Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson are both good young players who should continue to produce at a high level. The outfield picture is a bit muddled in Cincinnati, and so the Reds will probably play a lot of mix-and-match depending on pitching matchups throughout the season. The lineup isn’t bad by any stretch at the top, but the lower half is about what you’d expect from a cost-cutting team.

 

Projected Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Luis Castillo R
2 Tyler Mahle R
3 Mike Minor L
4 Vladimir Gutierrez R
5 Hunter Greene R

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL Lucas Sims L
CL Luis Cessa R
CL Hunter Strickland R
Mid Art Warren R
Mid Justin Wilson L
Mid Buck Farmer R
Mid Jeff Hoffman R
Long Zack Godley R

 

Luis Castillo and Mike Minor are unlikely to start the season due to minor injuries, but those are not expected to be long-term issues. In the meantime, the Reds will have to piece together the rest of their rotation and find some length either through starts or bullpen arms. Tyler Mahle was awfully good over stretches and finished with a sub-four ERA in 2021.

The Reds announced that Hunter Greene will be on the opening day roster, which is a bit of a surprise considering the Reds’ cost-cutting ways in the offseason, albeit a welcome one.

In the bullpen, like his starting rotation teammates, Lucas Sims is unlikely to be able to start the season on time but should receive the lion’s share of save opportunities once he gets back. In the meantime, Hunter Strickland turned things around in 2021 and was an effective reliever and will probably share duties with Luis Cessa (though I’d expect Strickland to get the majority of opportunities early). Art Warren is a really interesting pitcher with huge strikeout stuff, and would be a name to watch in the bullpen if any of the closers ahead of him on the depth chart struggle, or if Sims is out longer than expected.

Overall the rotation is middling while Castillo is out, at least. That is, unless …

 

Storylines To Follow

 

Greene is the Reds’ top prospect, throws 100 mph, and there’s plenty of room in Cincinnati’s rotation. On the other hand, Greene has all of 65 innings at AAA, where he had a bit of a home run problem (not a great one to have in Cincinnati) and struggled a bit with his command at times. Promoting top prospects early doesn’t really seem like a thing a team that’s trying to cut costs would be eager to do, but Greene (along with the Reds’ second-best pitching prospect Nick Lodolo) adds some excitement and intrigue to the staff this year.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

2021 Record: 61-101 (.377 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

Additions: C Roberto Perez, SP José Quintana, RP Heath Hembree

Subtractions: SP Trevor Cahill, UTIL Colin Moran

 

Projected Lineup

 

 

Projected Bench

 

Player Position Bats
Michael Perez C L
Michael Chavis 2B R
Anthony Alford OF R
Hoy Park UTIL L

 

Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds could end up being cornerstones of a pennant-contending team. Of course, the question is whether that team could be the Pirates, or if they’ll be gone before the Bucs put players around them.

Reynolds is coming off a 5-win 2021 in center field, with a batting line that wasn’t too terribly different from his 2019 campaign. He’s perhaps the most underrated player in baseball due to playing in Pittsburgh. Hayes has struggled through injuries in his short stint in the majors, but if he can stay healthy he’s possibly a superstar.

The rest of the Pirates’ lineup lands somewhere between “serviceable” and “here to get traded to a contender in July.”

 

Projected Rotation

 

Order Player Throws
1 Mitch Keller R
2 José Quintana L
3 JT Brubaker R
4 Wil Crowe R
5 Zach Thompson R

 

Projected Bullpen

 

Role Player Throws
CL David Bednar R
CL Heath Hembree R
SU Chris Stratton R
SU Sam Howard L
Mid Anthony Banda L
Mid Duane Underwood Jr. R
Mid Bryse Wilson R
Long Dillon Peters L

 

Pittsburgh plays in a beautiful park, and I spent a wonderful weekend there once. Primanti Brothers did not disappoint, and I had a really good pierogi pizza at this brewpub that used to be a church.

 

Storylines To Follow

 

It’s once again another season of waiting for the young players to come around and take the leap into superstardom in Pittsburgh. It’s a bit cliché to wonder when those players will be traded after they make that jump, but sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason. Pittsburgh’s ownership has demonstrated time and time again that it won’t spend money for a contender. It’s one thing to build a team through the draft and development (which, granted, seems to go well for the Pirates as they consistently have a young exciting prospect on their squad), but without supplementing that homegrown talent with veteran, even moderately-priced contracts, it’s difficult to see how this team contends anytime soon.

If Ke’Bryan Hayes is closer to his brief stint in 2020 than his injury-plagued 2021, he’ll be one of the most exciting young players in the league. The Pirates should act accordingly if that is the case, and begin to build around him in the immediate future, and that begins by promoting Oneil Cruz and holding onto Bryan Reynolds and any other players who are positive contributors toward that goal.

 

Photos by IconSportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@justparadesigns on Twitter)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to Pitcher List and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

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